- Atikameg, Alberta (1956)
My first husband, Bob, got a job teaching on an Indian
Reservation around Atikameg, Alberta. Atikameg means Little Whitefish'.
I went up north. By up north I mean 200 miles north of Edmonton near
Little Slave Lake. I was pregnant at the time.
Bates managed to burn the Schoolhouse and Teacherage down before I got
up there. The house was heated by a cast iron stove which was wood-fueled.
The cold kept him from carrying the ashes and cinders out too far from
the house. He threw them in the snow next to the house in the full belief
that the snow would put them out. The live coals in with the cinders burned
through the snow all the way down to the Teacherage's wood foundations
and up she went!
This was the biggest excitement of that winter. All the kids showed up.
Bob and the adult Indian workers tried to throw the schoolbooks out of
the fire area to save them but the kids threw those books right back in
the fire. Take good aim. Throw that book back in the fire. Their aim was
very good. I guess they weren't into book learning.
The only place left for us to live in was a little Indian
log cabin way up on the hill closer to Indian territory rather than Anglican
Mission territory. Folks got horses and men and all trying to drag that
little cabin down to the Anglican settlement. It gets 30 below up north.
Frost and cold had a good grip on the foundation and that cabin wasn't
The Arrow points to our little cabin
We settled in up there, which the Anglican minister considered to be
a great shame but that little log cabin was really snug. The old teacher's
house which had burned down would have been cold and drafty because they'd
built it like a regular frame house down further south. This was farther
north and could get very, very cold. The only time it warmed up was when
the Chinook came over the mountains carrying a warm wind from the ocean
currents. From Fahrenheit 30° below it would sweep up to 20° above
Zero in about an hour and this was something to look forward to.
I was a solitary soul. Folks expected that I would visit with some of
the more Christianized Indians and the daughters of the Hudson's Bay Post
Factor and so forth.
I liked to read and think and do things with my hands. Now, I had lots
of time to do that. Reading was precious. I had one book of literary horror
stories. I remember reading Kafka's Metamorphosis' . I would allow
myself three pages a day from this book, so I wouldn't run out of reading.
Most of the books up there had perished in the flames when the Teacherage
burned down, so that was all I had.
As the days went by I got bigger and bigger because, hey, I was expecting.
Bates settled into teaching with some disturbances. The Indian boys liked
to slip shotgun shells into the cast-iron stove which gave the subsequent
explosion a really satisfying reverb. We had some pictures of them. I've
got them now. Pictures of the Indian boys riding quarter horses or small
horses dressed in, basically, cowboy regalia, riding bareback and doing
it very well. It's just a strange image of them all dressed up as cowboys.
I guess they were sticking to the winning side.
The preacher was British, as was his wife. He was about 70 and had spent
many years in the frozen north as an Anglican missionary to the Indians.
The Indians on this reserve were nomadic Cree. They had a special way
of looking at time which was embedded in their language and in their culture.
This made for some problems when it came to court cases because the past
to them was, apparently, yesterday or many moons ago. Nothing in between.
This made Where were you on the night of such and such?' a little
bit precarious. I don't know what their future tense was like, or if the
even had one. All I heard about were the legal matters.
The Indians were fishermen and hunters and they worked on the oil rigs
from time to time. For fishing in winter they cut a hole in the ice and
it was proprietary. Whoever cut the hole could fish there and no one else.
I found that out after a polite visitor came and informed me that I had
been fishing in his ice hole. We apologized and offered him our catch.
If you did catch a fish, all you had to do was throw it on the roof of
the cabin where dogs or bears couldn't get at it and that fish was frozen
in no time.
The road and the Atikameg Lake
Sonia Brock 2006
Edited October 10, 2023